Beer's Bizarre Bad Attitude

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What's up with some brewers' bad attitude?

I'm sure by now many of you have read this story, about Scofflaw Brewing Co. in Atlanta.  If you haven't, the short version is that, in response to what seems like completely normal feedback/questions about their beer ("Why are beers in the same six-pack so different?"), they responded with "BUY SOMETHING ELSE" and a picture of the brewery staff giving the middle finger to the camera.  

Their rationale seems to be that "we're a small brewery with limited resources and therefore you have to deal with some inconsistency."  Setting that aside for the moment (but I'll come back to it), someone needs to explain to me why a business that sells to the public and seems to put such a premium on cooperation, togetherness, and camaraderie also seems to be home to a not-pervasive but strangely-persistent strain of touchiness and attitude.

This Scofflaw case is the most recent, but it definitely isn't unique or new.

No Returns

At a certain brewpub I used to visit a couple of times a year there was a disclaimer on the beer menu that went something like this: "If you have any questions about a beer, ask your server, because we don't accept any returns if you don't like it."

I understand the impulse.  The place served some unconventional beers, though not so many nor so far outside the norm that this seemed necessary (I saw no such warning on the menu at the Dogfish Head Brewpub in Rehoboth, and it's way more outlandish).  When you get your third sour beer returned in an hour I'm sure that, as a brewer or bar owner, you want to say "you ordered it, you're paying for it."

I still think it's a stupid thing to do.  First, what's it costing you, really?  Cost per ounce, especially at a brewpub, is pretty low, out the door.  More importantly, though, by getting your $6 on that pint you won't take back you're probably costing yourself business, too.  Enjoy it - you just lost the $300 that person will now spend down the street over the next year.  

And isn't it possible that at least one of those people is right, and there's something wrong with that beer?  Dirty line?  Contaminated keg?  It just seems unreasonable and counterproductive to claim, in writing, that every beer is exactly as it should be and we're just not interested in whether you like it or not or for what reason - you're paying for it.

No Rules

Some breweries seem to think that sanitation, consistency, temperature control, or other standard brewing practices are somehow too "square" for them.  This seems to be the line taken by Scofflaw.  "Fingers for the people who want us to march to the drum."  What?

There's a difference between "technically, biologically, and chemically sound beer" and "corporate beer."  If the complaint about Scofflaw was that they make something other than lite lager, then their response makes sense.  That's not the complaint.  The complaint is that you're making inconsistent (and maybe bad) beer.

It's like saying, "look, Bob, I like you as a roommate, but can you please be a little more conscientious when murdering hobos on the back porch?  The blood attracts coyotes.  At least clean up after yourself," and Bob responding, "OH!  FINE!  I GUESS YOU JUST WANT SOME STRAIT-LACED BANKER TYPE FOR A ROOMMATE!"  Bob has overreacted.  As has the brewery I saw that bragged about its lagers while fermenting in a hot warehouse with no temperature control - guys, that's not "doing it your way," that's "doing it in a way that guarantees you're screwing up the thing you say you're good at."

And make up your mind.  Which is it?  Is it that you don't value/need those things, or that you just can't afford them so your customers have to live with it to drink your beer?  Because it's one thing to say, as Scofflaw did, "This is a small batch brewery. The amount of time a beer spends in a tank, sometimes due to limited human resources, variances in ingredients, and other shit like this affects the beer," and another to present me with a hand gesture suggesting I should go have intercourse with myself.  It's kind of like when I'm driving and the person in front of me isn't turning right at a red light when there's no cross-traffic.  I tap my horn.  You can go, or you can give me the finger - but it makes no sense to do both.  If I'm wrong, why are you going?  If I'm right, why are you flipping me off?

If it's the latter, though, fine - they're right.  If customers want consistency, they'll need to go elsewhere.  But why do you have to give me the finger along with it?

No Feedback

In many cases, we're not even talking about harsh feedback.  We were just discussing this recently - not all feedback is friendly, or well-intentioned, or polite.  But it seems like a certain group of brewers aren't open to any feedback, no matter how constructive or polite.

That's weird. But, again, not uncommon.  The first professional brewer I ever spoke to about beer reacted...badly.  

It's weird because you're offering a product to the public.  You're not an artist - you're a manufacturer.  Is there artistry in beer?  Of course.  Just like there's artistry in cooking, and automobile design, and landscaping, and a bunch of other fields.  Still, it seems more common in brewing than in other fields for producers to tell consumers to go pound sand without even a veneer of "thank you for your feedback" to soften the blow.

No Choice

By the way, not only is it not all brewers, it's not even a sizable minority - but they seem to be spread evenly throughout the beer world, like a ripple of rancid beans in an otherwise great seven-layer dip.  Maybe these brewers, though, have convinced themselves that the people who want their beer have no other choice.

"Fine - you don't like it?  We don't even want you as a consumer.  Our real fans get it."

Maybe.  Maybe not.  Maybe you're falling victim to a logical fallacy.  Maybe your brewery has a fad following.  Maybe your rebellious attitude (to put as positive a spin on it as we can) is actually winning you drinkers and loyalty.  

I'll say this, though: are you willing to gamble your entire business and livelihood on that?  Because the craft beer map is filling out.  There aren't nearly as many places left where I can't get good and creative and consistent and slightly-counterculture beer.  Sure, you can't keep up with demand now - but what about when four breweries open within 20 miles, produce even something that's just close to as good as yours, and don't patronize their patrons?

No Reason

So maybe tone done the attitude a bit.  I don't see how it helps you, to be honest.  What's the reason for it?

The best brewers I know, uniformly, don't act this way, even when given a good reason to.  It isn't like I'm ignorant of the unreasonable-to-stupid feedback and comments breweries have to field, probably every day.  But you don't return fire - because there's no reason to.

Manners cost nothing.  Politeness rarely hurts and often helps.  "All returns accepted, no questions asked" is a reason I shop at a lot of the places I shop at - hell, I once returned cut lumber to a certain hardware big-box store, which is why I dropped $700 there in the past three days (Barbara is out of town, and I gotta fill the time with something...).  Pick your MBA, politeness, or "golden rule" cliche and run with it.

Because I don't see how this attitude survives in a crowded marketplace.

Keep it simple.

JJW

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Session to the Rescue: How Craft Beer Can Shrink to Greatness

Despite being a massive beer nerd, I'm very much a lightweight, which makes me a natural fan of session beers (those at about 4.5% ABV or lower, though the definition has some flex in it).  I sometimes struggle to find lighter beers on bar tap lists, which I can understand, to an extent: there's definitely a market for big, unique beers, and a beer bar wants to have the kind of edgy things that draw a crowd.  What surprises me, though, is that bars and breweries don't seem to be seeing the major economic upside to offering more session beers.

This is all the more relevant in the context of last week's article: there is currently more beer being produced per drinker than ever before, and that market is probably shrinking even as production and the number of producers increases.  

Session beer to the rescue!  And it's good for everyone - brewers, bar owners, and beer drinkers.

Same Alcohol, More Product, Better Beer, More Money

I have a sack of grain.  That grain contains a fixed amount of starch, which produces a fixed amount of sugar, which is fermented into a fixed amount of alcohol.  If I make a 9% Tripel or Double IPA with it, I get some number of pints out of that sack.  If I make a 4.5% Belgian Blonde or Session IPA, I get twice that number of pints out of the same sack.  

Bought a beer lately?  I'm assuming so (and if not, PLEASE comment below and tell me why you read Beer Simple if you haven't ordered a beer lately!).  If you have, you might notice that you pay about as much for that 4.7% Kolsch as you do for the 7% IPA.  If you're a brewer, why wouldn't you make more of the cheaper beer?  The profit margin is almost certainly higher.  Lower ABVs also mean less sweetness to balance and higher hop utilization and easier-to-spot hops flavor and aroma, which means you're saving on hops in two different ways, too.  

Then there's the idea that you can sell a customer more than one.  I can drink a couple-three pints of English Bitter and still carry on a conversation about how much Arsenal sucks (sorry - English Premiere League season starts up this weekend - #COYS).  If I drink a pint of a certain Belgian Tripel (terrific beer) I feel like what I assume it feels like when you smoke too much peyote.  

Session beers are also a bit easier to brew.  As a practical matter, alcohol creates toxicity, and yeast don't actually like it that much.  As ABV increases, the challenge of brewing that beer goes up, as yeast tend to produce more off-flavors when they're pissed off.  Skilled brewers can still do it, of course, but it creates a higher degree-of-difficulty.  That's not to say session beers are a breeze to make, but at least that one variable is a little more friendly.

If you can't create more mouths to pour beer into, then a solid way forward is to increase the number of beers going into each mouth.  You can either encourage people to get more drunk, or just spread out that same alcohol across multiple pints.  Even marginal reductions in ABV would yield significant savings and increase sales.

Over the Bar, Not Under It

I don't own a bar, but if I did I think I know what my major concern would be: drunks.  I mean, you're selling alcohol, and when people drink they sometimes get drunk, and when they get drunk they sometimes fight, puke, or talk incessantly about Game of Thrones - and who wants that?

Increasing the availability of session beer means it's a product that you can not only sell more of (see above), but also that consumers can better dial-in their level of intoxication and lowers the probability of someone going overboard faster than they realize, thanks to that 12% barrel-aged Quad.

Wouldn't you rather send more beer over the bar than clean up the folks laying under it?  Fewer rowdy drunks (or more less-rowdy not-quite-drunks, to be accurate) also means a better environment, and more patrons, and more sales.  

Easy Does It

This is good for beer drinkers, too.  Lower ABV per beer probably means less alcohol consumed overall.  I assume that most of us order a more-or-less stable number of beers, dictated by the circumstance.  Out to dinner, Happy Hour, on a date, out with friends, picnic at the beer garden, and any number of other set-piece beer drinking situations tend to yield a certain number of pints ordered.  

More session beer might mean you add one to that tally, but you won't make up all of the alcohol unless you're drinking a lot more pints, and less alcohol is a good thing, health-wise.

I'm no physician (though I am a doctor...of the mind), but it's my understanding that alcohol can have some negative health impacts, which is why we should try to consume it in moderation.  One thing I definitely know, though, is that alcohol = calories, and lower ABV means fewer calories, other factors in the beer recipe being equal.  

Order more session beer.  Fewer calories, fewer hangovers, fewer long-term health risks (I think).  

Everybody Wins

This is one of those situations where everyone wins.  Yes, some beers use alcohol to great effect as a flavor, but you'd have a hard time convincing me that anyone is really noticing the difference between a 6% and 5% IPA.   

Brewers can save money in production.  Bars can increase profit margins.  And we consumers can drink more beer and less alcohol and fewer calories.  And Craft Beer as a phenomenon can buy itself some more time to figure out how this is all going to shake out.

Session to the rescue!

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).


Sunset on the Beer Savanna: More Beer, Fewer Mouths

How much beer is too much beer?  I don’t know (and I don’t think anyone does), but I can confidently state that it’s at least possible that we’re approaching that point when it comes to craft beer.  I know it seemed like there could never be too much craft beer.  Every new brewery on the tap list was a joy to see, and we could simply enjoy this new beer wonderland we were living in.  A huge and diverse Beer Savanna was ours to relish.  How could we ever feel crowded on it?

This is the third and final installment in a three-part series about the proliferation of craft breweries.  I want to thank you for reading this far, from the plea to stop opening new craft breweries, through last week’s discussion of the elbow-bumping that’s changing the beer and bar scene’s collegial attitudes, and now to this week, where we’re tackling a question that usually comes to me as an objection when I raise this issue.  The objection looks like this:

“We had thousands of breweries before Prohibition, and we have only a little more than that now.  But our population is three times what it was then – so what’s the problem?”

The problem is that “number of breweries” isn’t the right metric.  The right metric is production per capita, especially when we factor in overall rates of alcohol consumption, and consumption of beer, particularly.

If we want to know if a “crunch” is coming in the craft beer world, we need to assess how much beer we’re making per person, and how much beer those persons are drinking (or could be drinking, if we market well).  Bottom line up-front: it's more than ever, for a smaller relative audience.

Comparing Points in Brewing Time

Pre-prohibition, we had a lot of breweries.  What we didn’t have were massive production breweries.  You had lots of local and super-local breweries, but not many big-time regional breweries and few real “national” breweries.

Today, we have a lot of breweries.  Most craft breweries are locals, as in the heady days of 1919.  But in addition we have regional craft and non-craft breweries, and of course we also have the mega-breweries of our macro friends. 

So, even with the same number of breweries, we can’t say that the number of breweries compared to the number of people gives us a good sense of whether we’re overproducing.  Let’s go to my preferred metric: production per person (PPP), measured by the ratio of barrels produced (or in the market) to population.

In 1919, the year before Prohibition, the US had a population of 105 million.  It also had a little more than 1,000 breweries, down from a peak of about 4,000 in the late 19th c. (Brewers Association “Historic Number of Breweries,” Beer Advocate “History of Beer in the US”).  This contraction was due in large part to improvements in refrigeration, allowing for and, indeed, leading to some brewery consolidation.  In that year, US beer production was approximately 68 million barrels (Beer Institute – Statistics).  That leads to a PPP value of 0.64 (barrels per person).

Fast forward to today.  True, our population is larger – approximately 320 million (2016).  Production, however, has increased to 216 million barrels, which means that our PPP measure for 2016 is 0.67, which slightly exceeds our pre-Prohibition number.  And as we know, the number of breweries opening each year is growing, and existing breweries are increasing their capacity.  Production is growing faster than population growth, and faster than any fall-off in macro beer consumption (in case anyone was going to claim that craft was simply taking up the slack being lost by macro beer).  And, as one final objection head-off response, “what about exported beer?”  The US Department of Commerce report for 2016 shows that the US imports more than six times as much beer as it exports (roughly 33 million barrels imported, against 5 million exported).  Factoring in total “beer in the market,” then, we add a net 28 million barrels and the PPP ratio rises to 0.76.

I don’t know how much beer is too much.  I do know that, per capita, we’re looking at more of it in our market than ever.

More Beer – Fewer Mouths

We now have, on average, an extra beer in every six-pack as a percentage of beer-to-population, as shown by the PPP measure (0.64 in 1919, 0.76 today).  If the beer-buying public has grown, though, then that may not really matter.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like that’s the case. 

Yes, the growing popularity of craft beer has led some who previously shied away from beer to jump back in.  That rapid, double-digit growth has slowed, though, and at an inopportune time: more than 1,000 new breweries are firing up their kettles this year alone. 

From the high-altitude demographic perspective, beer is in a bit of a hole.  It’s looking down the barrel of a bad population pyramid, given the preferences of each demographic group vis-à-vis its alcohol preferences.

When asked by Gallup their first-choice preference for alcoholic beverages, about 70% of people 50 and older chose beer.  Twenty years ago, that was also true of those age 18-29.  Today, though, that number (while still at about 70% for older drinkers) has dropped by thirty points among younger drinkersFewer than half of younger drinkers are choosing beer (around 40%).  That drop has hopefully hit its floor (with a slight increase last year), but a dramatic recovery to the 70s seems unlikely.

Then there’s this: fewer Americans are drinking alcohol at all.  The percent that are at least “occasional” drinkers has dropped from a high of 71% in 1978 to 64% in 2014 (the last year available in Gallup’s time-series data).  The difference, again, has a significant age-related component: the drop is nearly entirely accounted for in the younger demographic groups, with those 50+ showing consistent drinking habits.

The short version, then, is that we have a grayer, drunker population than we used to.  Given the size of that group – baby boomers – we have something of a buffer in terms of consumption.  However, that group is going to start undergoing what we politely term “generational replacement” – it’s going to start dying.  When it does, who will pick up the stein and carry on?

I Don’t Know

I don’t know how much is too much.  Maybe we can carry on like this for a while yet.  Maybe beer – especially craft beer – will keep finding new customers and bringing them over to its side.  Maybe existing beer drinkers will happily continue paying a growing premium for “good” beer, keeping profits high and smaller, local breweries solvent despite declining unit sales and static (or shrinking) markets.  Maybe we’ll enter a period of correction where breweries will sort themselves out, consolidate, and transition to a more-sustainable model.

Maybe not.

I mean it, though: I don’t know.  I’m not claiming that we’ve hit a saturation point for craft beer.  I do know this, though: there’s more beer out there that I want to drink than I can in any given year.  There are entire breweries that I’ve never or only intermittently tried, even when they’re fairly local. 

I’m sure that beer observers have said this very thing once a week for years, but it genuinely feels to me like we’ve reached a tipping point. 

A Train Leaves San Diego at 55 MPH…

To bring home and synthesize the parts of this argument from these three pieces:

·      We have an ever-expanding craft beer community that is populated, in significant part, by brewers of dubious qualification creating a product of dubious quality

·      As the brewing environment begins to “fill in” its negative space, breweries and bars are going to see an erosion of the amity and cooperative spirit that many think of as being intrinsic to craft beer, thanks to good old-fashioned competition

·      As the beer train hurtles down the tracks, there’s a demographic train humming up the same track in the opposite direction

Those trains may be further apart than I think.  It’s possible they’re not actually headed for a collision, and the market will rationalize rather than convulse.  I suppose it’s also possible that the questions about craft beer quality are both overstated and that breweries will mature and improve, proving this to be just a temporary blip caused by a sudden influx of new players coming into the market.

I don’t buy that, though.  I think that brewery investors should start looking for outs.  I think that brewery employees should start thinking about other industries that can use their hard-earned skills.

I wonder if we have forgotten that the free market is a Darwinian place; there was so much room out there on the beer savanna for craft breweries to romp and play, with few predators in sight and hops fields as far as the eye could see and rivers of wort pouring, seemingly endlessly, to the horizon.  Who wants to think about a time when we’ll have to fight it out for resources, customers, and our own survival?  Who wants to ask if that day is soon to come?  Who wants to ask if it’s already here?

Now, though, the free market hyenas may well be at the door.  I don’t know what will happen next, but if nature is any guide, this may get messy.

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).